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  • Writer's pictureSteve Crowther

Steve Crowther in conversation with composer Richard Allain


Richard Allain grew up in London and Norfolk and tells me that he was always around music of pretty much all kinds including singing in choirs. He was lucky enough to have piano and violin lessons: ‘I excelled at neither, but completely loved exploring repertoire’. And then this happened:


‘While at school, I worked as a cellar man in the village pub where they had a piano. I was limping my way through some standards in the back bar one Sunday afternoon when an old chap struck up a conversation with me and promised to bring his saxophone the following weekend. The gentleman turned out to be Peter Buchanan who, many years before, had co-written My Old Man’s a Dustman.’


The song was a No.1 hit for skiffle singer Lonnie Donnegan in 1960:


‘Oh, my old man's a dustman He wears a dustman's hat He wears cor blimey trousers And he lives in a council flat’…


‘Peter was a generous soul, and he and I formed a jazz band with other retired musicians he knew, all of whom had played during the dance band years of the forties and fifties. They took the sixteen-year-old me under their collective wing and taught me to read chord charts and improvise. I wrote music of all kinds at that time - pop and jazz songs, chamber pieces, anything. ‘

Given these formative influences, it comes as no surprise to read that:

‘Richard Allain is hard to pigeonhole as a composer. His works encompass a wide range of styles including music theatre, instrumental pieces, sacred choral music, song-writing and works for children. Such is his versatility, he has been commissioned to write music for broadcast on BBC Radio 2, 3 and 4. His music is regularly performed and broadcast within the UK and in countries throughout the world.’

He studied at London University where he encountered the ‘thrilling’ sound world of the Avant Garde. But his ‘developing voice was rooted in tonality which was deeply unpopular at the time, and I felt dispirited by the whole process of my degree.’ He also ‘worked at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, before pursuing a parallel career in teaching and composition.’

At this time there were ‘no performances of [his] own music of any kind, [he] spent my days in a freezing little flat in North London continuing to write music, before heading into Covent Garden for the evening shows.’

The breakthrough came with his choral work Salve Regina, which he had written ‘in the days around the birth of my first child, sat neglected for over three years before it was eventually taken on by the National Youth Choir of Great Britain. That piece opened the door for me - eventually being performed at the Proms eight years after it was written.’

On reflection he says: ‘I feel something of a late starter in some ways, at the same time I’m grateful that my writing style was formulated over many years away from public and academic scrutiny.’

I asked Richard if he could describe his arrangement of the Coventry Carol:

Coventry Carol began life as a snippet of instrumental music for a setting of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, written for the Bingham String Quartet. I later extended it for voices. It’s quite an extensive arrangement in that textures and reharmonisation constantly evolve. It moves through different keys. And it references the English Cadence and explores dissonance to illustrate the text. I’ve heard the original in shopping malls at Christmas and often reflected why it’s included in cheerful seasonal playlists! The text is so chilling. My intention was to focus on the drama of the story and try to illustrate it through music, whilst retaining the original melody note for note.’


Asking any composer to describe their compositional process is always blessed with a degree of ambiguity, as indeed it should be. As he says:


‘Despite my many years of experience, I still don’t really understand how the compositional process works! Once in a blue moon, pieces seem to write themselves, Coventry Carol was one of the few. Inspiration comes in many forms, often unexpectedly - I can be driving the car, or in the busiest part of a working day. If it happens at night, I’m usually too lazy to get out of bed and write it down. There is no ideal approach. Sometimes pieces will take me several years. I recently went back to music I’d written as a student forty years ago to complete a setting of Keats’ O Soft Embalmer of the Still Midnight.’


‘More recently, I was asked in a pub one night to write a choral piece for an upcoming service.’

Well, who hasn’t.


‘Within three weeks the piece was written and published, and broadcast live on the BBC. There is no set way, but I guess all these musical/life experiences somehow percolate through in the end.’


When I asked Richard to describe his individual ‘sound world’, he seemed entirely practical and pragmatic:


‘It depends on which genre I’m writing in. The common denominators are use of modes and extended harmony. In the case of Illuminare (organ) the language is quite complex and almost polytonal in places. If it’s a pop-inspired song for kids, then the harmony is generally more straightforward. Horses for courses, I guess. Coventry Carol deliberately exploits dissonance, though it is largely diatonic.’


But what, I asked, defines his motivation to compose music:


‘I think it’s about truth. Music is a constant force in my life, and I still love that I get to just be around it in all its many forms. Life is busy and complicated, so my output varies due to circumstances. But I strive for some kind of truth, integrity, constancy or honesty, in all that I write.’


Finally, I always like to ask the question: ‘If you could have a beer and a chat with any composer from the past, who would it be and why.’ The response was simply a delight:


‘I’d like to have been sipping a beer in Mozart’s apartment when he was playing through his new quartets dedicated to Haydn, with the father of the string quartet right there playing violin. I’d like to have had a beer with Shostakovich and smelled the cigarette smoke in his study while he was writing the 5th symphony. Or sat in the corner of the room while Brahms was playing through his late piano works. Or perhaps heard Bach improvise at the end of a church service (before going out for a beer). What about being in the studio when Miles Davis and Bill Evans were laying down Kind of Blue, or Sinatra/Riddle recording Under My Skin? I admire Vaughan Williams too, as he was a complete maverick in some ways, a unique approach to everything. I’d like to have had tea (or a beer) with him, not least to admire his splendid trousers!  


Richard Allain’s arrangement of Coventry Carol will be performed by the Elysian Singers on Saturday 2 March as part of York Late Music’s concert series. Visit here for tickets concert detail.

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